Spend just a few minutes playing with a toddler and it becomes clear that their imaginations are capable of taking them to wonderful places and on amazing adventures.
The downside to their busy brains? They don’t come with an “off” switch. At around age 3, the fear of imaginary creatures (such as monsters or shadows in the dark) comes into full effect. The good news is that your child will eventually grow out of this phase. In the meantime, there are strategies you can try to help your child put their fears to rest.
It’s hard to see our children distressed, but take comfort in the fact that fear of imaginary monsters is a normal developmental step in childhood. In most cases, fear functions to keep us safe. Of course, at this age, it is the parents’ job to keep them safe. Toddlers and young children can set aside reality and pretend, like when they pretend a block is a car. They know it is a block, but can ignore that, and the car becomes very “real.” In the same way, monsters can become “real.” Our task as parents is to help our children calm down so they can access their thinking brain and put those very real monsters back in their imaginary place.
You may need to play detective with your toddler to uncover what they are afraid of, especially if they are still developing their language skills. You may start to notice some signs and physical symptoms to indicate they are afraid of something:
- Increased heart rate
- Breathing quickly
- Sweating and shaking
- Crying when the lights go out
- Refusing to go to bed
- Night wakings
Managing Nighttime Monsters
If your child wakes in the middle of the night claiming there is a monster under the bed, don’t shrug it off—while their fears may sound silly to you, they are very real to your child:
- Stay calm and let your child know that you understand they are frightened.
- Reassure your child that monsters are not real and that her bedroom is a very safe place.
- Explain that dreams are just ideas that we have while we sleep and that they cannot hurt us.
- Choose a coping strategy to help your child calm down:
- Take slow, deep breaths. Imagine that your breath is filling a balloon.
- Go floppy, relaxing every muscle and body part.
- Pick a happy thought to replace the scary thought.
Monsters Be Gone!
If your toddler expresses worry about monsters or other scary creatures, try implementing a few tactics during the day to help calm their fears at night:
- Monitor the types of media they are viewing. Many children’s books and shows (even for toddlers) feature monsters or villains. Limit these until your child is developmentally ready for them.
- Read Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. It features a child who meets wild things in his dreams, conquers them, becomes king of the wild things, and has a playful romp with the monsters before returning home.
- Have a predictable bedtime routine, ending screen time at least 2 hours before bedtime. Many toddlers enjoy a bath, snack, and books (with happy endings!) before bed.
- Let your child choose a nightlight for their room.
- During the day, ask your older toddler to draw the monster they are afraid of. It might give you some information on the source of the fear, such as a character from a show.
- Make the dark fun by playing games in their room during the day that involve the lights out.
- Play Hide and Seek. This is a way for your child to experience being scared in a safe way.
During the day, or when your child is feeling calm, ask them what their ideas are for remembering monsters are not real. They may surprise you with “monster spray” or “monster guards” (stuffed animals) to keep the monsters out. Some child psychologists advise against indulging in your child’s fears with these types of tactics, but many parents say they worked for their child. One approach is to say, “Monsters aren’t real, but if you are feeling scared, we could pretend that monsters are afraid of dogs. What if we put your dog stuffies in front of your door while you sleep?”
It takes time for children to overcome their fears about scary things they imagine. You can help by teaching your child how to cope with the unpleasant feelings caused by fear. Helping them learn ways to calm themselves and ways to remember what is real and what is pretend can go a long way in overcoming fears. If your child’s fears begin to interfere with their daily life, it may be time to seek professional advice. Resources can be found at https://resources.parentingnow.org/.
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com). Parenting Now! is passionate about happy, healthy families. For more information about Parenting Now! please visit their website (https://parentingnow.org/) or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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